Guest Post: Called of God, In Spite of Man (or to Spite Man?) — Choosing to Be a Sister Missionary in the Face of Opposition

Posted by on July 18, 2012 in women | 57 comments

by Sartawi
(Sartawi is a BYU-educated nurse and a world-educated woman.  Her life’s work is to help women of all cultures reach their full potential, and help men respect and support the powerful nature of women, starting with her three kids at home.)

I had always wanted to serve a mission, which, ironically, was my way of asserting my independence in the heart of Mormon Country. My friends were all getting married and starting families, and I was busy with my nursing studies, while traveling the world in various humanitarian capacities. Amongst these endeavours, I wanted to include a mission for the Church. I did not have the slightest desire to share the gospel through proselyting, but I felt very strongly that a mission is where I needed to go next. I trusted that the Lord knew what he was doing.

I submitted my papers just before leaving for a six month internship in Southern Africa. Normally at the time, a call would take about three weeks to arrive. Mine still had not arrived four months later. My stake president called several times to “Downtown” to find out what the hold up was, and was told by a “higher up” that my papers were being held for a specific mission. Since certain missions are on the docket each week to receive new assignees, “mine” was down the line a bit. I was told that the mission committee felt strongly that I was to serve in a particular mission and they were waiting for that mission to be on the agenda.

Finally, five months after submitting my papers, I received my call: a very poor country in South America, as a welfare services missionary. It was perfect. I felt like this was my calling; I was destined for it. It was inspired. It was where I was supposed to serve. I could continue humanitarian work for the Church, without the pressures of proselyting in the traditional sense.

I returned from Africa with only four short weeks to prepare for my mission. It was a whirlwind of excitement and emotion, for my frazzled mother in particular. I was thrilled that I was chosen specifically for this mission, and it quashed many of the nagging thoughts I had been having about the status of women in the Church. I was called. I was needed as a sister missionary.

Then General Conference came one week before my MTC date. My father returned home from priesthood session on Saturday night, looking very concerned. “What happened?” I queried. “The prophet spoke very strongly about young women and missionary service.” He tried to summarize for me, and I was appalled. I was devastated. I felt betrayed and humiliated. In essence, President Hinckley stated that only men should serve missions. That there would be some women who want to serve, and they may, if they pray about it and the “idea persists”, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to go. He stated very plainly that “We need some women. They can get in doors that the elders cannot,” as well as confirmed that there is an age discrepancy between elders and sisters to discourage women from serving missions. He even went so far as to “confess” that he had two granddaughters on missions, though they did not consult him in any way before submitting their papers. Good for them. I can only imagine how they would feel coming away from that conversation, should they have spoken with him first. However, I can also imagine they must have been heartbroken hearing those words while in the mission field, not only from the prophet, but their grandfather. The final straw, as I read the report of the priesthood session online, was that the prophet concluded with “[This] may appear to be something of a strange thing to say in priesthood meeting. I say it here because I do not know where else to say it. The bishops and stake presidents of the Church have now heard it. And they must be the ones who make the judgment in this matter.”

I was crushed. My strong conviction that I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do vanished in an instant. My testimony that I was called to this particular mission at this particular time, because I was needed there, was terribly shaken. I instantly felt squashed like a bug, put in my place, and left as an unimportant and unnecessary woman. Worst of all, the prophet that I had followed diligently wouldn’t even tell it to my face…to the women…but decided that priesthood session, excluding all women, was the appropriate place for such a declaration. This is in spite of the fact that the General Relief Society meeting was the previous week.

I had already committed to the mission. I was leaving one week later. I couldn’t turn back now; I had already had my fanfare farewell. I had a decision to make: go on my mission and be a submissive and unnecessary sister missionary, which is how I now believed the church saw us as women; cancel the mission in protest, but knowing the protest would fall on deaf ears and accomplish nothing to remedy this situation; or fulfill my mission, use the time to complete the work I felt I was destined to do, and raise Hell in the church from that time forth.

I chose the latter.

I was a strong-willed sister missionary. I served the people of my South American mission with all I had in me. I used my nursing and humanitarian background, coupled with my faith, to teach welfare principles holistically: spiritual, physical, familial, financial and health. I truly believed that I was where I was supposed to be. I changed lives, and in turn, my life was changed by others. I rarely taught discussions. I rarely knocked on doors. I had few baptisms. Yet I feel my mission was my life’s greatest work to date. I did it, and I did it my way, with my own inspiration directly from the Lord. I don’t remember a thing my mission president taught, but I remember every direct inspiration I received from personal prayer to make life better for others.

My mission was my calling. It came officially by way of the patriarchal priesthood of the Church, but it was actually given directly to me, before that, through my own personal revelation. The patriarchs of the Church tried to deter me from what the Lord wanted, and in that moment, I knew. I knew that my life’s religion would not be Mormonism. It would be aspects of Mormonism, made pure in my life by the inspiration I receive directly from my Heavenly Father. It would be a life mission to help other women reach their full potential, and find a way to have a voice in this patriarchal Church. I still believe the principles of the gospel to be true, in their purest sense. However, I no longer see it through the eyes of my oppressors, but with my own clear vision and autonomy.

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57 Comments

  1. Amazing how two people can interpret similar experience so differently.

    I am glad you are operating on your own relationship with the Lord. But I don’t feel it necessary in my own journey to demonize the prophets on the way.

    Is it not possible in your mind that President Hinckley was counseling against a growing trend of parents and priesthood leaders positing women into going, and wasn’t really about you and your situation at all?

    • SilverRain:

      I don’t feel it necessary in my own journey to demonize the prophets on the way.

      Is it not possible in your mind that

      I am reminded of that saying, which perhaps was repeated here recently:

      “Catholics claim their pope is infallible, but nobody really believes it. Mormons claim that their prophet is not infallible, but nobody really believes it.”

      Our official doctrine is that the prophets are men who err, who fall victims to their own prejudices and biases, who are occasionally motivated by ego and ignorance and fear.

      Is it not possible in your mind that Sartawi was pointing to one of the times when Hinckley was motivated by fear of change, fear of women, fear of the loss of male authority, ignorance of what women can do, ignorance of what they feel? Particularly in light of his truly strange statement:

      “[This] may appear to be something of a strange thing to say in priesthood meeting. I say it here because I do not know where else to say it. The bishops and stake presidents of the Church have now heard it. And they must be the ones who make the judgment in this matter.”

      a man who supposedly talks directly to god doesn’t know where else but a meeting attended only by men to talk about the way WOMEN serve in the church? Really?

      You used the term “demonize,” which is pretty strong, for her approach to Hinckley.

      Why would you demonize a sister who, on a blog often devoted to the topic, revealed ways that she had been hurt by male statements and directives about female service and activity?

      Is it not possible in your mind that President Hinckley was counseling against a growing trend of parents and priesthood leaders positing women into going, and wasn’t really about you and your situation at all?

      The BOM tells us to take scripture–the words of the prophets–and LIKEN THEM UNTO OURSELVES. Sartawi was doing what she was trained–what ALL OF US were trained–to do: taking male priesthood directives and internalizing them.

      And you criticize–demonize–her for that?

      Huh.

      from the OP:

      fulfill my mission, use the time to complete the work I felt I was destined to do, and raise Hell in the church from that time forth.

      Sartawi, you go, girl. Raise all the hell you want.

      • It is very possible in my mind that she was pointing to a time when SHE FELT that President Hinckley was motivated by fear. Knowing him the way I do, I really doubt it was actually fear. Why would it be beneficial for him to tell the women that the SPs and bishops needed to lay off of them and stop pressuring them to go on missions?

        For what it is worth, I had several friends around this time who were being pressured to abandon their studies and rest of their lives to go on missions. So I see it differently because I saw the exact behavior he was referring to. Nowhere in there did he say that women should not go, only that they shouldn’t be “encouraged,” which is phrased according to how such priesthood leaders perceived their own actions.

        There is a difference between realizing that people aren’t infallible and demonizing them. The OP attributes motivations to President Hinckley that may or may not have been there. I’m not saying this to defend President Hinckley, nor am I saying it because he IS President Hinckley. I’m saying it because attributing evil motivations to anybody puts us in a victim mode that paralyzes our ability to effect actual change.

        I’m saying it because I’ve done that exact same thing before, and hurt only myself, and done the opposite, that is to give people the benefit of the doubt, and been able to effect incredible change in this church.

        I’m saying it because I detect a whole lot of pain in this post that resonates with me, and want to share what I have found that has helped.

        Not once did I demonize her. But if she is going to post about her perspective in a public blog, she must also be prepared for courteous (which I was) and empathetic (which I am) responses that critique her approach.

      • Not once did I demonize her.

        if you think that’s true, then you seriously need to consider the possibility that you are absolutely wrong in accusing Sartawi of “demonizing” Hinckley.

        I’m saying it because attributing evil motivations to anybody puts us in a victim mode that paralyzes our ability to effect actual change.

        Huh.

        So attributing evil motives–say, cruelty or malice–to someone who rapes you or tortures you and laughs at your pain “puts us in a victim mode that paralyzes our ability to effect actual change”? It doesn’t, for instance, help us confront reality, and come to terms the nature of what’s been done to us?

        People sometimes do evil for the fact that they want to. Failure to recognize this is and account for it is failure to live in the real world, which inhibits if not downright arrests “our ability to effect actual change.”

        You might want to read Descent’s post from yesterday on the Dark Man:

        “When a society exhorts its people to be distrustful of and to shun the deep instinctual life, then an auto-predatory element in each individual psyche is strengthened and accelerated.”

        The answer, then, is for the wild woman within to be allowed to recognize these cultural forces, ask the key questions regarding what is being lost to this cultural predation so she can then “take the world into one’s arms and act in a soul-filled and soul-strengthening manner.”

        Perhaps my favorite line in her essay on the dark man is this:

        Wild Woman teaches women when not to act ‘nice’ about protecting their soulful lives. The wildish nature knows that being ‘sweet’ in these instances will only make the predator smile.

        Patriarchy is predatory, and the predators love to smile at their prey.

      • Not once did I demonize her. But if she is going to post about her perspective in a public blog, she must also be prepared for courteous (which I was) and empathetic (which I am) responses that critique her approach.

        You jumped from her frustration with President Hinckley’s talk to saying she was “demoniz[ing] the prophets.” This qualifies as courteous in your book?

      • Are you saying she wasn’t portraying President Hinckley as threatening? That was my interpretation of what she wrote, not mere frustration but attributing wicked and threatening motives to his actions.

        If I was mistaken, I certainly apologize.

        And yes, I communicated my interpretation very courteously, without rancor or rudeness of any kind. Simple disagreement with sentiment is not, by itself, rude. I didn’t tell her she needed to change, I shared what has been my experience with similar situations, and asked her if she had considered another point of view.

      • Oh, and this:

        The OP attributes motivations to President Hinckley that may or may not have been there. I’m not saying this to defend President Hinckley, nor am I saying it because he IS President Hinckley.

        Precisely where are motives attributed to Hinckley?

        In the OP I didn’t find much discussion of what he did or why. I found a discussion of the talk he gave, and I found this statement:

        The patriarchs of the Church tried to deter me from what the Lord wanted

        But I don’t see much speculation about anyone’s motives at all.

        So please, let me know where you do see it.

      • Are you saying she wasn’t portraying President Hinckley as threatening?

        Why does portraying someone as threatening automatically mean for you that the speaker is “demonizing” someone?

        not mere frustration but attributing wicked and threatening motives to his actions.

        I have read the OP repeatedly and find not one single place where motives are attributed, so again, I would really like to know where and how you find this.

        Thanks.

        yes, I communicated my interpretation very courteously, without rancor or rudeness of any kind. Simple disagreement with sentiment is not, by itself, rude.

        Interesting that you are able to defend your disagreement this way but find reason to characterize disagreement with Hinckley’s talk as “demonizing” him.

      • “Why does portraying someone as threatening automatically mean for you that the speaker is “demonizing” someone?”

        Because, Holly, that is one of the definitions of demonizing, and the one that I was using when I chose that word. You will note that I did not attribute any threatening motivations at all to the OP, and I only sensed the motivation of pain as a reaction to the treatment she experienced. Hence, the difference.

        For your other question, there is much that attributes threatening motivations by subtle inference, e.g. in describing what the imagined other girls would feel from a conversation with Pres. Hinckley, but a few quotes that communicate the bias more clearly:

        “. . . Worst of all, the prophet that I had followed diligently wouldn’t even tell it to my face . . . “ Implying motives of fear and attributes of cowardice.

        ” . . . knowing the protest would fall on deaf ears and accomplish nothing to remedy this situation . . . “ Attributing the motive of discounting the value of the OP, as “deaf ears” means they have no interest in listening.

        “The patriarchs of the Church tried to deter me from what the Lord wanted . . .” Which attributes the motive of deliberately trying to deter the OP from following the Spirit.

        And another, “eyes of my oppressors,” again inferring that the motive of the men of the Church is control.

        I, personally, have felt exactly the same way several times in my life from my interactions with Priesthood authority. But the only success I have found in changing the hearts and minds of such men (and women, incidentally) has been in giving them the benefit of the doubt, that their motivations are not born from evil intent, but from good, and calmly, patiently, and full of the Spirit “reasoning together” with them.

        That is what I was attempting to share.

      • there is much that attributes threatening motivations by subtle inference.

        OK. Thanks for owning up to the fact that you have to use “subtle inference” rather than being able to point to anything concrete, that you rely primarily on your assumptions about Sartawi rather than explicit statements she makes.

        You are right: if we base our ideas of others’ motives on “subtle inference,” we are in dangerous territory, and will very frequently find ourselves “in a victim mode that paralyzes our ability to effect actual change.”

      • Oh, and this:

        “Why does portraying someone as threatening automatically mean for you that the speaker is “demonizing” someone?”

        blockquote>Because, Holly, that is one of the definitions of demonizing, and the one that I was using when I chose that word.

        I looked up “demonize”:

        1. to turn into a demon or make demonlike.
        2. to subject to the influence of demons.

        Relevant definitions for “demon”:

        1. an evil spirit; devil or fiend.
        2. an evil passion or influence.
        3. a person considered extremely wicked, evil, or cruel.

        Nothing there to suggest that merely saying someone is threatening to to demonize.

        If you say, “the cop threatened me with a ticket,” have you “demonized” the cop?

        Not in my book, but perhaps in yours.

      • I’m confused, Holly. I did offer four concrete examples. I’m beginning to get the feeling that you’re more interested in being angry at me and attacking than in candid and real discussion about the matter that the OP brought up. I hope that isn’t the case.

        I appreciate that the OP has listened to what I was saying, and am glad for the discussion I have had with her. But I find further back-and-forth with you at this time on this subject unfortunately unproductive for either of us.

      • re: the google definition: “wicked AND threatening” is not the same as “wicked OR threatening,” is it?

        I did offer four concrete examples.

        You offered four examples in which you assumed that YOU knew what motives Sarwati ascribed to the prophets. You did not offer four examples in which Sarwati stated, “I knew the prophet did these because he believed, desired, and intended such and such.”

        If I said, “He wouldn’t even give me this news to my face,” how would you know if I ascribed any motive for why this person wouldn’t say a particular thing to my face?

        Perhaps I was baffled as to his motives and couldn’t find one.

        You don’t know. You can guess. But guessing isn’t knowing.

        You can write

        “. . . Worst of all, the prophet that I had followed diligently wouldn’t even tell it to my face . . . “ Implying motives of fear and attributes of cowardice.

        but someone else could assume that the prophet wouldn’t say it to her face because he didn’t think it was important enough to bother with. Someone could assert that it had nothing to do with cowardice and everything to do with arrogance.

        You don’t know. You can only guess.

        the examples you offered aren’t concrete examples. Those are flimsy inferences.

        I’m beginning to get the feeling that you’re more interested in being angry at me and attacking than in candid and real discussion about the matter that the OP brought up.

        I’m happy to discuss the matter the OP brought up, and would like to do so as candidly as possible. Which is why I’m so frustrated that rather than deal with it, you make up all sorts of things that you see in the OP and then insist that you have concrete evidence that the stuff you’ve made up is really there.

        It’s not there.

    • if anyone is interested in reading the original article, it was the October 1997 Priesthood Session. The part about sisters is at the end of the talk.

      • I appreciate the replies. I had no intention of demonizing the prophet, and I, in fact, hold President Hinckley in high regard. I found this particular talk very disturbing, however. In my life, with my experience, it put the men around me on the offense. Because the women had not been advised directly, I heard it secondhand from the men in my life for a week until I could see it written firsthand. Women had no opportunity to voice their own opinion on the matter, because the men were told first, and actually, the women were never actually told at all, unless they read the priesthood account. I found it aggravating that for a good part of the talk, the men were told that missions were their responsibility, that it would be one of their life’s greatest works, that it would develop their testimonies and lives in ways they couldn’t comprehend, and they would be blessed for their service. Then, literally in the next paragraph, tell women that they don’t need that in their lives. I don’t think women should be expected to serve missions by any means. However, I also don’t believe men should be constrained to a mission, either. As a mission nurse, I had to advise sending home 10 different elders because they mentally were not ready, and could not handle the mission life. It was driving them mad, but they were terrified of being labeled with a “dishonorable discharge” by choosing to give it up and go home. They knew people would talk, and people would wonder if they had “messed up”. They in no way should have gone out because they felt they were required to. My main point here was that I felt personally called to a mission. I KNEW this was what I was supposed to do, and President Hinckley basically said that a woman choosing to go on a mission is just an idea that we get in our heads, and we need an extra two years’ time, and the counsel of our male leaders to get that idea out of our heads. If “the idea persists”, then we have the blessing to go, but only after being discouraged by both time and leaders. I realize this is two different issues that are touched on in my post, but I was interested in knowing others’ thoughts on the talk. I have two sons and a daughter, and I can tell you right now that not one of them will feel it is their duty or responsibility to be a missionary, but at the same time, all of them will receive my complete support and encouragement (and my husbands’ as well) for whatever they choose, as long as they know for themselves that it is where they feel they should be.

      • I agree, sartawi and thank you for your clarification. It must be good to know that you have friends who will jump so adamantly to your defense.

        I agree. I think addressing the problems you describe are in part what was meant by the “raising the bar” movement slightly later on. Unfortunately, many well-meaning but misguided people have interpreted it differently.

    • SilverRain, speaking out about well-meaning but hurtful behavior or statements is “demonizing”? I disagree. I think it’s very possible for good people, even prophets, to make mistakes. To speak up about how someone else’s well intentioned statements have done harm is probably the most productive course of action possible. To say that you have been hurt also by such statements from church leaders is telling, and the fact that in other posts on this blog the same statement by Pres. Hinckley has been cited as hurtful, discouraging, and dismissive of female autonomy is also telling. That you were able to stay positive and overcome your own negative response to Pres. Hinckley’s statement is great, but to claim someone is demonizing the prophet simply by speaking up about how his inappropriately delivered statements affected her and why, strikes me as counter-productive.

      The productive part of your comment was to ask if it was possible that Pres. Hinckley was addressing a legitimate issue. I do think it’s possible, but the wording he used and the platform he used reflects an attitude that he knows better, and that bishops, and stake presidents know better than individual women what God wants for them.

  2. *positing = pressuring

  3. I am sad about your father’s take on that talk by President Hinckley.

    I remember that talk. I had returned from my mission by that time and heard and read it very differently.

    I don’t know where you were living but where I was there was a sort of fervor among 20 somethings over sisters serving missions; a sense that if you were a woman who was going to serve a mission you were demonstrating more dedication and spirituality than others and that if you didn’t you were somehow lacking. As a result, where I was, many young women who did not feel called to serve were feeling like failures, and quite a few young women who probably would have been wiser to do something else, did put in mission papers. (I served in a district with one of the latter for a bit; a sister who was serving just because she thought the people in her ward expected it of her. It was hard all around.)

    For the geographic area where I was Pres. Hinckley’s message was a breathe of fresh air that paved the way for many young women to get out from under unspoken expectations or false guilt and free themselves to find out from the Lord what was best for them.

    I wish your father hadn’t read “only men should serve” into the message. That wasn’t how that talk was heard where I was.

    • This is also part of what I saw, so thank you for sharing.

    • “to get out from under unspoken expectations or false guilt and free themselves to find out from the Lord what was best for them.”

      If that is the case, I wish young men in the Church would receive that message too. I wish that was the message that was sent to *everyone* in the Church.

      • Yes. It would be wise for all of us to lay off the social pressure on the young men in our respective congregations.
        A mission should not be something you do because of social pressure or misplaced guilt be you male or female.

      • I agree.

      • My thoughts exactly. It’s okay to pressure the guys and see them as unfaithful if they don’t go, but for the women the exact opposite is true. Why?

    • I, too, felt extreme pressure to serve a mission, so President Hinckley’s talk was such a relief to me. It felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders. I have always been grateful that the talk was given when it was.

      It is eye-opening to me that the talk that helped me so much was the same talk that hurt other people so much. I wonder how often this happens.

  4. I love that you were able to find the middle ground. So often in the church and life in general, women feel pushed to choose between two opposing realities, neither of which feels right to them. I admire your courage in creating a path somewhere in between. I think often our power lies in the middle ground.

  5. I interpreted that talk just like MB, a warning to bishops and stake presidents and fathers to not pressure women into going on missions, to not make a mission a sign of increased faith and obedience, to let each woman make her own decision and then support her in that decision.

  6. My wife was one of those being pressured by her leaders and parents to go on a mission, even though the answer she kept getting when she prayed about it was “no”. She very much wanted to go, but she knew that the inspiration she was being given was what would be right for her. Instead, she left home for more school and work, expanding her experiences as a writer and still being able to help the sister missionaries in her area. I’m glad she took her own revelation over the desires of others, no matter how well meaning.

    I’m sorry your father came home with the understanding he did. Though I’ve seen this complaint of Pres Hinkley’s talk more than once, I really don’t see where he could have given that direction other than in the Priesthood meeting. Putting it in the RS conference or in a general session would have sounded like “don’t let your leaders pressure you into going on missions”. In the Priesthood session, he could give the direction directly to the men who were doing the pressuring, rather than putting someone else in between.

    Even though I’ll be encouraging my own daughter to look forward to a mission, I’ll also be trying to teach her that the decisions on what she does with her life are between her and her Heavely Father. I’m just her to help facilitate, advise, and enjoy watching her grow into the amazing woman I know she will be.

    • Putting it in the RS conference or in a general session would have sounded like “don’t let your leaders pressure you into going on missions”.

      It probably would have, in the context of a church that expects men to make decisions FOR women and asks women to submit to male authority.

      But if it were part of an overall message of “Women, you get to make decisions for your lives, and you don’t need to submit to male ideas and opinions about your roles and obligations,” it might have sounded different coming from a woman in a relief society meeting.

      So overall, the take-away is, “Brethren, men get to tell women what to do, and pressure them to behave in certain ways, and since overall we want them to submit to that pressure, don’t pressure them to do this thing that actually interferes with the main thing we pressure them to do, which is to get married and start having kids. Don’t waste your authority on something that doesn’t really matter.”

      Yeah. I can see why a feminist might object to that.

      • If the trend had been RS presidents pressuring young women into serving missions (even when they didn’t want to), the direction would have been given in the general RS meeting. The point was to tell the people who were doing wrong, in this case the Bishops and other leaders pressuring women to serve missions, to stop doing what they were doing. It wasn’t directed at anyone not doing this, nor was it directed at the entire Church.

        If the church or its leadership truly wanted to curb women going on missions, they’d simply refuse to issue mission calls. Aside from health reasons (which would be just as valid for the men), has that -ever- happened? I’d think there would be a big stink if -anyone- ever got a letter saying “you’re healthy and able, but we’ve filled our quota”.

        If the message came from a woman Prophet would you have had the same take-away?

      • The point was to tell the people who were doing wrong, in this case the Bishops and other leaders pressuring women to serve missions, to stop doing what they were doing. It wasn’t directed at anyone not doing this, nor was it directed at the entire Church.

        You mentioned that your wife was being pressured by her PARENTS to go on a mission.

        I assume that means her father and her MOTHER.

        was her mother at that meeting? I’m guessing not.

        or were her mother’s attempts at pressuring her not wrong because parents can do that? Or perhaps the mother’s influence was so small that it doesn’t count?

        In any event, the fact remains: women are not told to make their own decisions for themselves regardless of male approval. Women are told to seek male approval, and not just from a single man: from their husbands, fathers, bishops, stake presidents, and other (invariably male) leaders.

        And I assert that that is an overall system that Hinckley never thought to question in the first place, and would want to avoid undermining in any significant way if it ever did occur to him to question it.

        If the church or its leadership truly wanted to curb women going on missions, they’d simply refuse to issue mission calls.

        You really think that?

        is that the tack they took when they wanted to curb missions for certain men they found undesirable, with the whole “raise the bar” thing?

        I’d think there would be a big stink if -anyone- ever got a letter saying “you’re healthy and able, but we’ve filled our quota”.

        You do of course know people who’ve gotten such a letter, right?

        Because I do.

        it’s remarkable how traumatic it is for the person who gets the letter, and how anxious everyone else is to pretend like nothing ever happened.

        If the message came from a woman Prophet would you have had the same take-away?

        Probably not. But a woman prophet wouldn’t be exercising male authority and instructing other men in how to exercise male authority over women, would she?

    • Thanks for sharing your wife’s experience, hers and others experiences tell me that there was a legitimate issue that Hinckley was trying to address. I still feel that it was poorly and inappropriately delivered though. I think the practice of instilling an obligation in all youth (or all male youth, or all female youth as the case may be) to serve missions without also teaching that it may not be right for everyone, that personal revelation should take precedent over the insistence of bishops, stake presidents, prophets etc…is harmful to begin with. So naturally trying to correct an incorrect practice by then having those leaders nudge women in the other direction away from missionary service, but by the same harmful way of imposing an obligation on women, this time to be less inclined to serve, is obviously going to cause some problems. It would have been great if to begin with, church leaders had just taught both men and women to recognize and follow personal revelation regarding missionary service, and asked bishops and stake presidents to respect the personal revelation of members.

    • It was interesting to hear your take on the choice of audience. I am another one who felt/feels like it may not have been the most appropriate thing to give counsel about women to an audience without any. I had also never considered that it was an address specifically to those who were doing the unnecessary pressuring. This is almost assuredly tied to my own experience with it though, where I met with my BYU bishop as per filling out my mission papers, and the first thing he did was read me the quote by President Hinckley, how if women are able, they should get married instead. It was immensely discouraging to meet with someone who I thought would be pleased with my decision, and who I believed would encourage me for what I felt was not only a righteous choice, but the right choice per my life and per God’s desires, to have to convince someone that I had no marriage prospects. That bishop at least read into it that it wasn’t the best thing for women to go, and thus actively tried to discourage them. I think there could be some good old fashioned encouragement somewhere in the middle there, where there is neither the excessive (and undue) pressuring on one side and little to no encouragement on the other.

      I think sharing the thoughts in a setting with women and men, and being more explicit about what he meant by them would have been a good step. If he was talking to the bishops and Stake Presidents, then perhaps he could have said, “Dear Bishops and Stake Presidents, I know you are well meaning, but please don’t tell women that they need to serve if they have no desire or have not felt the call,” and to the women, he could have said, “We love it when you serve missions. Please come if you want to come. We will encourage you. We will support you. We will trust your decision.” That could have made all of the difference, and addressed both issues.

  7. I’m glad you were able to choose a higher road. I had a priesthood leader ask me recently to relate testimony-building moments in my life. When I told about the experiences surrounding deciding not to get married and then later not to serve a mission, he stopped me and said, “That was not revelation. It would have been fine,” and then he wouldn’t continue until I had agreed with him. Ridiculous. You don’t tell people that their defining moments weren’t at all what they thought they were. Unless, of course, you’re a man with the power in the Church.

    • Yikes! That was pretty arrogant of him. I agree with you, Michelle. The response “your experience is false” is absurd.

    • Your experience is true. I am so glad you listened to it/did what you know was the right thing for you. That is the beauty of personal revelation: that it is Personal.

  8. Love this post!

    I’m stuck in a quandary. On the one hand, I think it’s terrible that there is an institutionalized discrimination between our young adult men and women. A man chooses not to serve a mission, people whisper about what he might have done or his lack of ambition or blah blah blah. A woman chooses to serve a mission and people are almost shocked. And I’ve heard some really nasty things said about female missionaries by their returned male counterparts (And by men who were dating these women at the time they decided to go on missions: Leave me and spend a year and a half serving the Lord? How dare she!).

    But, on the other hand, I’ve never wanted to serve a mission. I’ve been very strong-minded about it since I was a small child–it’s not the place for me. It’s not that I wouldn’t be good at it, and it’s not even that I don’t have the faith for it, it’s just that it’s not where I want or need to take my life. And I apreciate that I have the option to say that without being looked down upon. Nobody cares whether I go on a mission or not, in effect, and I like the freedom.

    I love the way you talk about raising hell, about living the gospel with autonomy. That’s what I’m trying to teach myself to do.

  9. Nice post, Sartawi. I’m actually really encouraged to hear from MB, KLC, and Frank that they or people around them found this talk helpful. Because I read it like you did: it came across as nothing but hurtful.

    President Hinckley seemed to be wringing his hands over a problem that he couldn’t solve. He wanted to discourage women from serving missions, but he wanted to be sure to discourage them just the right amount. He conceded that there were some things sisters could do that elders couldn’t, so he didn’t want to discourage them so much that nobody wanted to go. But just as clearly, he felt the number of women who wanted to serve was too high, so they obviously weren’t being discouraged enough. (Only let them go maybe “if the idea persists,” as though it were some oddball wish like living in a treehouse or dyeing your hair purple.) So he passed this dilemma along to bishops and stake presidents to ask them to discourage women a little harder. Surely he must have known–it was General Conference, after all–that his words would reach women lots of other ways too, and perhaps he was counting on there being a generally discouraging effect through all those paths.

    Really, though, I think the whole line of reasoning is silly. Do we want to proclaim the gospel or not? Is it really so important to make sure it’s mostly men doing it that we’re willing to accept less proclaiming of the gospel?

    • Thanks for your reply (and others as well). It is interesting to see others’ views on this talk, which is why I wrote this post in the first place. Obviously, I heard it only one way, but I can see how others have read it differently, and I am open to that, and certainly respect other opinions!

      However, I agree with you, Ziff, that it was an awkward way of presenting the message. It felt like a cop-out way of putting women in their place, reminding us that we are supposed to get married and have children. I am sure there are many girls that felt expected to serve missions, and I can see how this would be a welcome talk for them, as it gives them an out. But that’s just it. It is a women-specific message. It widens the gender divide in the church.

      Once I made it to the mission field, I had a president who is now a general authority. He took this message to heart. He made it known that the elders were there because it was God’s will, and the women were there only because we wanted to be there, and so the church was humoring us by letting us serve. It didn’t deter me. I served completely and diligently, and was confident in my own reasons for being there. I truly felt that God had wanted me there, and didn’t just acquiesce because I was stubborn enough to persist with my idea to go on a mission.

      I do appreciate all the posts, and I knew when I wrote it that it would generate opposition. I wouldn’t post it in a public blog if I didn’t think I could handle the heat :)

    • I think you are exactly right in your suggestion that Pres. H wanted to discourage sisters from serving, but in the right amount.

      I posted before about an article that talks about this same thing: http://tenderheartedmercy.blogspot.com/2012/07/after-life_17.html

      They want some sisters, but not very many, and their mixed message refrain that sisters are “not invited, but welcome” does precisely that. It would be amazing if it weren’t so sad.

  10. I had a president who is now a general authority. He took this message to heart. He made it known that the elders were there because it was God’s will, and the women were there only because we wanted to be there, and so the church was humoring us by letting us serve. It didn’t deter me.

    I had two mission presidents, one who died far too young and another who, from what I can tell, is simply retired. They both valued sisters very highly. One repeatedly asked SLC to make a full 50% of the missionaries he worked with sister missionaries. He never got what he wanted, because there were too few to go around.

    Is it really so important to make sure it’s mostly men doing it that we’re willing to accept less proclaiming of the gospel?

    This is one of the things that drives me nuts: the church will gladly pay a truly awful price for things like withholding the priesthood from black men for reasons no one can now name or defend, or for opposing gay marriage–but the price of extending equality to women or talking about Heavenly Mother or whatever it is that women want is ALWAYS too high, always something we can’t possibly ask it pay.

    • thank you for your comments. I know there have been, and are, mission presidents who highly respect the sisters in their missions. Mine did not, and he was vocal about it. The problem is that there IS such variation. I have never heard of a mission president who did not highly respect the elders in their mission. Elders are always wanted and respected, and sisters have a wide range of acceptance in the mission field. Leveling the field would do wonders for the women who do choose to, and commit themselves to, a mission every bit as much as their male counterparts. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      • One of my brothers had a mission president who didn’t respect his elders. One of his tools of motivation was derision.
        It was pretty awful.
        So it can happen.

  11. Sorry for the threadjack–it is vaguely relevant.

    I had the good fortune to serve on Temple Square (1998-1999) and had a mission president who supervised only sisters and senior couples. We had female district leaders, zone leaders and assistants to the president. We had our share of health issues, petty grievances, and general difficulties learning to live with a companion and abide by mission rules. We also (collectively) spoke 100 languages, gave tours to visiting dignitaries and translated the Book of Mormon into minor languages.

    I’ve recently learned what has happened to some of the sisters I served with. Their life experiences have been varied–much more so than I would have imagined when I served my mission. They are single, married, alcoholic, divorced, sexually questioning, mothers, step-mothers, employed, in graduate school, broke, wealthy, faithful, excommunicated, and vibrant. I can’t imagine another group of women of which I am more pleased to be a part.

    On my mission, I learned to respect the women of the church. There were sisters who were girly, sporty, defiant, submissive, academic, social, terrified, and joyful. They all had something different to offer. Together, we made a vibrant whole. Together, we still make a vibrant whole. (Sorry to be so mushy–but I respect the women I served with. I respected them then and I respect them now–all of them).

  12. Oops, I meant 1997-1998. I had already left when President Hinckley gave this talk.

  13. This was a beautiful post, thank you for writing. You are an extremely strong woman, and I’m amazed at your strength in your personal beliefs and revelations.

    It was interesting when I brought up this Pr. Hinckley talk with my husband, who like me is no longer active but unlike me has served a mission. He put forth this thought more or less: “I wish that he had given this talk to EVERYONE about serving missions. If someone in the church had said to me ‘hey, if you feel a divine pull to serve a mission, great. You are needed. But don’t feel obligated, because you could do all sorts of things with your life’ then I never would have gone. But my whole family and community expected me to go. So I went.”

    We jokingly refer to them as “the worst 2 years” for him, but really, the fact that he stayed out there- when it couldn’t have been a more debilitating environment for his type of personality-is jaw dropping. The church needs to revise its ENTIRE missionary program, where people who want to go, regardless of gender, should go and feel needed and appreciated, and people who want to go to college, make babies, join the peace corps, or just not go don’t have to feel like complete failures or heathens. THAT, my friends, is gender equality.

    • thank you for your reply. You (and your husband) said perfectly something I clumsily tried to write out. But you are spot-on with my sentiments. If it had been given as instruction to ALL, that’s one thing, but a topic specifically about women, but given to men, was disheartening.

  14. Sartawi,
    Thank you for this post. This is something I had been struggling with for years. I am the youngest of four, and the only girl. My mother, father, and three brothers all served missions, and I claimed throughout my childhood and youth that serving was something I was doing for me, that I wanted it more than anything. An “In your face, Priesthood Leaders!”, of sorts. My father was so supportive. My mother as well, but my father was vocally encouraging and proud. He made me feel empowered, especially when my other priesthood leaders were so weak-minded and discouraging. I wanted it so bad, knowing that I needed to do my part, that the Lord had something in store for me. I also didn’t want to feel like a failure in my family. The weak link, if you will.
    When I was 19, close to 20, I began to feel this inspirational nudge. It was time. I knew it was time. I felt it in my bones. I felt it in my soul. So, I talked to my priesthood leaders about it. One was understanding and put me in touch with the Stake President, and the Area President who was in town that weekend. The SP, however, patted me on the head and basically told me to marry my then-boyfriend, and the ARea Authority, in no uncertain terms, spouted policies in the face of my bishop, and basically said he didn’t have time for me. I was furious. I felt misguided, misunderstood, betrayed. Why can’t the exception be made for me? I pleaded. I wanted it so bad. Despite my pleadings, however, I just got patted on the head and sent on my not-so-merry way.
    I wrote a letter to Elder Ballard- the head of the missionary committee. I told him my frustrations and explained that I truly believed it was my time to serve and that the field was ripe and I was ready to harvest. What happened? A letter came to me as I was entering the MTC (at age 21) that again, patted me on the head and thanked me for the desire to serve.
    Ironically, my mission was horrible. My mission, I claim to this day, was one of the most rotten experiences of my life. After it all, I ended up having to go home early due to a medical condition. What I found most interesting, however, was that I was on my way home at the time I would have gone home had I gone out when I felt it was right in the first place. And what happened when I got home? I met the most wonderful man, and married him. We are blissfully happy 5 years later. What that tells me is that I received inspiration, and my priesthood leaders (most of them) didn’t care. They cited that talk by Pres. Hinckley, and others, and shut the door in the face of my personal revelation. It saddens me to this day that I couldn’t serve the full 18 months, which I know I would have been able to had I gone when I thought it was right. What comforts me is that the Lord understood me and my heart and brought me home when I needed to meet the man with whom I will share eternity.
    Sartawi, Thank you for posting. We women are strong. We are able. Why must we still be subject to our priesthood leaders’ egos?

  15. I felt very strongly called to serve a mission, and I was fortunate that my bishop and SP were supportive (this was years before President Hinckley’s talk). But I vividly remember sitting in the MTC listening to an apostle speak for a full hour without once so much as acknowledging the existence of sister missionaries, let alone our actual presence before him in the audience. His entire talk was addressed directly to the elders; effectively, we didn’t exist. After my mission, I read an account of the same apostle speaking at a prospective-missionary fireside, at which he asked all the women not planning on serving missions to stand and be honored for their choice.

    (Aside: I absolutely don’t think that women should feel pressured to serve missions if they themselves don’t feel called to. That was my reading of President Hinckley’s talk on the subject, although it’s clearly been interpreted in much more draconian ways. I read his mention of his granddaughters serving missions not as condemnation for an unorthodox choice made without his input but rather as an acknowledgement that missionary service was their decision–as it should be.)

    In my experience God seems to take a far more expansive view of my life and my soul than some of the small-minded men around me. I trust that God takes an infinitely expansive view of all of our lives and souls, seeing in all of us what we cannot bring ourselves to see and acknowledge in each other. In such circumstances I often think of that classic scene in Yentl when her father closes all the curtains in the house so that she can study Torah in secret. “I’m sure God will understand,” he says, “But I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

  16. Sartawi– YOU GO GIRL! THAT is what I’m talkin’ about!

    (Also, CG, you should totally write up your story in the Ensign. : D)

    My whole life I was on total fire to go on a mission, eg I pretty much put my entire life plan around it. And all the sudden, once I was actually old enough to put my papers on, it just *stopped.* The fire was *gone.* Nothing. It was sort of like that old object lesson with the hand and the glove. Sort of a grand, colossal “Meh.”

    So I just kept up with the school thing, got married, and so forth. Had a feminist awakening of volcanic proportions after our daughter was born a few years ago. It’s really fortuitous for my membership that that happened with a few more years’ gravity under my belt, and having already married a nice feminist Mormon boy with a mom who was a career woman, so he doesn’t think there’s anything weird about me wanting to do other things besides make his babies.

    I like what you said about being a hellraiser, Sartawi, because the only way I can interpret what happened vis-a-vis my mission is: if the true gospel’s ever going to come through then we need women who are fighters. If I’d gone on a mission, that feminist awakening probably would have come a lot sooner and I probably would have left the church screaming and never come back.

    • 1. I like your “name.” My grandma’s name is Zena, and we call her Zena, Warrior Grandma.

      2. I love your statement, “we need women who are fighters.” We do. The church does generally, and I do personally. Thank you for being one, and for staying.

  17. Interesting story. I’m glad you went. Clearly, you had a purpose and a calling and you were where Heavenly Father wanted you.

    I served a mission around the same time Pres. Hinckley said those word (I remember clearly hearing and thinking a mission maybe wasn’t for me after all). However, in the end, I never interpreted them to mean “you shouldn’t go”. I figured they meant “women shouldn’t go unless they feel clearly called”. I turned my papers in not long after that conference talk, and no one ever gave me any grief about it at all.

    So, considering how strongly you felt about your need to call, it’s surprising to me how much you interpreted those words to mean that you probably shouldn’t go after all…

    • My issue is more so with the church advising that if a woman goes on a mission, it is because she wants to, not that it is what God intended for her to do, and the leaders (all men) have the responsibility to make judgment in each case. Personally, I did feel I was needed and called to go, which is why I did, regardless of the prophet’s declaration. But I felt it was a terribly inappropriate talk, in an inappropriate setting, offered to an inappropriate audience, and furthered an already ghastly gender divide in the church. The same message could have been given to men and women, together, and offered that if a woman chooses to serve a mission, it is a legitimate call from God, not just an idea that she can’t get out of her head. Like I tried to say in the post, I felt the call, so in the end, it didn’t matter what he said, but it was terribly frustrating to hear such a declaration secondhand. It was frustrating to not have it presented directly to the women at any given time. It was frustrating to have our choice to serve, and our calling trivialized as a mere desire that is just something we want to do, but God doesn’t really need us to. Again, the message could have some positives, but it was poorly executed in its deliverance.

  18. Sartawi, thanks so much for this post. I vaguely knew about this talk, but it happened well after I had considered and dismissed the idea of serving a mission so it didn’t really register on my radar that strongly.

    I have to say I’m with you and Holly and others who have commented here about the nature of this talk. While I appreciate hearing others’ experience of this talk as a relief and reassurance that they needn’t even consider the social pressures they had felt to go on a mission, I still think that you are correct to call attention to how problematic the talk was. If there is inappropriate pressure being applied to go on a mission, it’s hard to believe it’s coming exclusively from bishops, stake presidents, and priesthood holders. I imagine it’s coming from a wide variety of sources, including many women. If the goal of the talk was to make it known that it is wrong to pressure young women to serve a mission, then why not communicate that message in a general session rather than priesthood? For instance, matters of church business are often addressed in the Saturday morning session. That seems a better place for it. There’s no reason why the message in a general session couldn’t have included a line instructing bishops and stake presidents to talk with prospective sister missionaries about their reasons for wanting to go and, if they got the impression it was due to social pressure, to address that problem then. And doing it in that venue would have the added value of 1. telling all the women who apply pressure that it’s not okay to do so; and 2. you know, acknowledging that women are people to and as such should receive instruction directly, rather than through men. But we all know how the church feels about that…

    I have to say that I see this kind of instruction as being as much about keeping women in their place as about anything else. When instruction that concerns women (this, or changing the temple recommend renewal period to two years, etc.) is only given to men with the understanding that the men will communicate it to women when necessary, the implicit message is that women are not as fully autonomous and deserving of equal access to God’s revealed truth, or even just to policy matters, that do have very real ramifications for them. The message communicated is that women’s job is to hearken to what they’re told by their male leaders, rather than to seek out their own personal understanding of God’s truth and instruction and then act on it based on their own will without needing male approval.

    Not at all surprising that the church sends those messages. But disturbing nonetheless.

  19. Sartawi, I am genuinely so glad that you served your mission, when you knew that was the right thing for you, despite the lack of encouragement others, including ecclesiastical leaders. There is something powerful that comes in doing one personally knows to be right. Your courage and example is inspiring.

    Secondly, I am glad that you chose to share your story with us here, in this space, in addition to the comment on my post (http://www.the-exponent.com/its-not-easy-being-green-neither-is-it-easy-being-a-full-time-female-missionary-for-the-lds-church/) about my own decision to serve a mission.

    I felt lack of encouragement too. First from my Young Womens President, who straightforwardly told my best friend and I that girls shouldn’t go on missions, because boys were supposed to do that. “What were girls supposed to do?” we asked. “Get married, of course.”

    The next person to actively discourage me was my oldest brother who himself had served (and loved) his mission, but was no longer active in the church. He told me that I didn’t have to go, so I shouldn’t go, and that I should focus on my schooling and career instead, and that only “fat, ugly, or crazy” girls go on missions, and I wasn’t any of those things, so I shouldn’t go.

    The last person to discourage me was my BYU Bishop, who I was required to meet with as per filling out my papers. I expected support there, for that difficult, but I believed righteous and inspired choice, which made his non-support feel worse. How was I met when I entered his office? With a quote from Pres. Hinckley about how women should get married instead of serve a mission, if they had the chance. Thus, I had to spend the next 15 minutes convincing my bishop that I did not indeed have the chance to get married at that time.

    Luckily for me, my Stake President that I met with the following week was only encouraging, and my parents were supportive in all of the best ways. I knew that they both wanted me to go, but I knew even more that it was my choice, and that they would support me either way. It was perfect for me.

    I also had a great Mission President and an even greater Mission President’s wife who both valued Sister Missionaries, and knew how to treat us like human beings. I think part of this is that one of their daughters served a mission, so they were able to see us in a more real way. It made all of the difference in my mission, especially when some of the young Elders in positions of authority over me did not quite know how to talk to Sister Missionaries as easily or readily as they did to Elders. I didn’t really blame them at the time (nor probably not now), but did take it as an opportunity to be responsible for myself and my own motivation rather than letting someone else be responsible over me.

  20. Sartawi,
    It appears that you and I submitted our mission papers at about the same time. Unlike you, I received my call promptly and I was a few months into my mission when this talk was made. Like you, I found this talk deeply hurtful. I mentioned this experience briefly in this post: http://www.the-exponent.com/insignificant-events/ and discussed it in more detail in the comment discussion that followed: here http://www.the-exponent.com/insignificant-events/comment-page-1/#comment-86216 and here http://www.the-exponent.com/insignificant-events/comment-page-1/#comment-86221 . A blogger at Mormon Mentality, who was also a missionary at the time of this talk, expressed similar sentiments: http://www.mormonmentality.org/2011/10/19/elders-and-sisters.htm#comment-133469. The sisters I served with in the mission field were equally devastated by this talk. When this subject comes up, I am always surprised at how many people try to point out how wrong and overly sensitive we women are to take offense at this talk, even though the reaction appears so universal among those of us sisters who legitimately and autonomously made the decision to serve missions during that time period. So many of us were just being “over-sensitive”? Really?

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